Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff
By Robert Stieve
It’s not a big secret. Not anymore. But back in the 1870s, a Mormon family figured that Secret Mountain was the perfect place to live quietly ever after. “No one will ever find us up here,” the ambitious husband presumably said to his multiple wives as they were evading polygamy persecution. Later, the 20-by-12-foot cabin was used by horse thieves who would move their contraband up present-day Loy Canyon Trail to the hideout, where they’d catch their breath before selling the stolen horses farther north. Remnants of the cabin are still standing; however, they’re not the highlight of this hike. The panoramic views along the trail are what stand out most. That is, if you can make it to the trailhead.
Although the trail itself is relatively level, there are plenty of ups and downs on Forest Road 538. Even in dry weather, the ruts can be a deterrent. Throw in some monsoon rains, and they become murky moats just waiting to suck you in. However, if you use your head and a low gear, you should be fine.
From the secluded trailhead at the end of the road, the route immediately enters the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness and follows a steep ridge that runs between Secret Canyon to the east and Loy Canyon to the west. These are the first of several canyons you’ll see from the trail, and the best views are yet to come. Meantime, the trail runs downhill, past some adolescent ponderosas, to an intersection with the Loy Canyon Trail, which comes up from Sedona.
Keep left at the intersection and make the short climb to a plateau that marks the top of the mountain. The forest here is dominated by ponderosa pines and Gambel oaks, with some healthy alligator junipers mixed in. It’s an open forest with minimal ground cover.
The next 10 minutes are an easy walk in the woods, followed by a slight drop into a small wash. Before long you’ll see the remnants of an old homestead. Then, after crossing a small creek, you’ll come to a couple of water holes. The riparian area around them is enticing. Take a moment, and then continue downhill to the cabin.
When you get there, you’ll understand why scofflaws would want to sink some roots in this secluded side canyon. “Idyllic setting” isn’t hyperbole. Despite the inclination to stick around, the trail continues on. But the route isn’t easy to find. You have to look behind the cabin to glimpse the cairns.
From there, the trail climbs a few hundred yards to a short spur that leads to the edge of Loy Canyon. It’s a worthy diversion — from the rim, the views extend all the way to Jerome. Back on the main trail, you’ll see a patchwork of clustered ponderosas, about 10-12 feet tall. There are spruce, too. Although the route dips back into the woods at this point, you’re never far from the rim. In fact, after about 20 minutes in the woods, you’ll come to another remarkable overlook.
This time, it’s Hart Well Canyon, which slices southwest toward the ancient ruins of Palatki and Honanki. Continuing on, the trail veers northwest and skirts the rim. Along the way, you’ll wind through several “tunnels” of young ponderosas and eventually drop down to yet another gorgeous overlook: Here, it’s Boynton Canyon. It’s beautiful, but maybe even more impressive is the view of Lost Mountain, which rises to an elevation of 6,583 feet. You’ll be eye-level with the mountain’s peak.
The rest of the route is a mix of rim views and forest ambling. The oaks get thicker, and you’ll see new growth in places where fires have burned over time. You’ll also get some great looks at the San Francisco Peaks. Then, after more than 2 hours of overall hiking, you’ll arrive at a rocky point that’s bounded by Long Canyon to the south and Secret Canyon to the north. Yes, more canyons. It’s the nature of this trail. Don’t worry about remembering all the names. Just enjoy the views to the south, and be glad you’re not a polygamist or a horse thief.
Photo: Long Canyon is one of many canyons that can be seen from the Secret Mountain Trail. | Joel Hazelton
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 10.6 miles round-trip
Elevation: 6,577 to 6,360 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 34˚58.779', W 111˚54.012'
Directions: From the intersection of Milton Road and Historic Route 66 in Flagstaff, go west on Route 66 for 1.9 miles to Forest Road 231 (Woody Mountain Road). Turn left onto FR 231 and continue 13.8 miles to Forest Road 538. Turn right onto FR 538 and continue 8.8 miles to an intersection with Forest Road 538H (the road to the Winter Cabin Trailhead). Veer left, continuing on FR 538, and drive 3.1 miles to the trailhead.
Vehicle Requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is required.
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
Horses Allowed: Yes
USGS Maps: Loy Butte, Wilson Mountain
Information: Flagstaff Ranger District, 928-526-0866 or www.fs.usda.gov/coconino